Research Report: 2021 Return to Growth Outlook—Key Takeaways

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the business world practically overnight, forcing companies to adapt to survive. To understand the true impact, Sage surveyed over 1,000 finance leaders of small- and mid-sized companies based in the U.S. The focus of the survey was the effects of the pandemic on strategy, employee engagement, customer retention, and connection to the community. It also sought to understand the confidence and plans these leaders have for growth in the next year. Here we highlight some of the findings of the report.

79% of businesses feel more connected to their customers since last year.

With more customers moving online and stores shuttered, businesses had to quickly shift their strategies to digital. Over half (55%) increased their digital marketing, while 45% increased their use of social media to connect with customers. 29% opened or expanded e-commerce endeavors, a challenging undertaking even in the best of times.

As the number of remote workers grew, HR had to adapt quickly to respond to employees forced to work from home. Business leaders had to find creative ways to retain customers. Finance teams had to bring discretionary spending to a screeching halt, while operating budgets were slashed.

Somehow, under these challenging circumstances, organizations not only survived but positioned themselves to thrive as the pandemic subsides.

How did they do it? Flexibility.

To attract customers—As customers moved online, 55% increased digital marketing activities, while 45% increased social media to form stronger connections.

In response to a shifting work environment—45% of companies implemented long-term or permanent remote working policies, while 39% boosted childcare assistance. 24% added completely new programs to recognize the employees contributions. Many initiatives yielded positive returns, with 79% of those surveyed reporting that they have become more connected with their employees, and only 6% planning to reduce budgets for these programs.

For many companies, their flexibility made the return to growth an attainable goal. Three quarters of finance teams are confident growth will return by the end of 2021, with nearly half (49%) expecting to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of September. In fact, 19% even predict double-digit growth for 2021.

As 2021 goes on, technology will continue to play a signficant role in growth. 38% of those surveyed believe that over the next 12 months the biggest postitive impact on their business will come from technology. Slightly under half (47%) expect to accelerate growth by investing more in technology. Due to the success they found in implementing digital strategies last year, it’s clear organizations intend to reinvest and find other areas of their businesses they can improve through technology.

Agility, new ways of connecting with customers, employees, and their communities, made up the winning formula that allowed companies to stay in business and be prepared to come back stronger than ever.  

The bottom line—Businesses are optimistic

In 2020 to survive, companies had to be extremely resilient. But during this unprecendented crisis many were also able to forge even stronger connections with customers, employees, and the community.

Some consistent themes emerged across the U.S.

  1. Companies accelerated digital transformation to improve processes and reach customers on new channels. It’s likely businesses will continue this customer-centric mindset.
  2. Organizations quickly shifted to non-traditional HR policies to meet the needs of employees, resulting in stronger engagement. And many gave generously to their communities, with goods, money, or services; and plan to continue or even increase their contributions.
  3. Reliance on technology has become greater than ever, with businesses viewing it as one of the most important influencers of growth. Companies able to invest in technology are those most confident in their ability to grow post-pandemic.

While 2020 was unprecedented, companies aren’t trying to put it in the rear-view mirror. Rather, they view it as an opportunity to use their response to the crisis to grow their businesses. They were able to learn from last year, creating new strategies that are now the foundation for growth.

Download the full report to learn from your peers as we continue to emerge from the pandemic.